By Steve Keating
(Reuters) – Caroline Marks says one of her greatest fears is drowning.
Which, if you are a professional surfer like Marks, would appear to be a career limiting condition. Not unlike a Formula One driver who fears going fast or a tight rope walker afraid of heights.
According to a 2018 World Health Organisation report there are globally 360,000 drowning deaths each year. It is the third leading cause of unintentional deaths worldwide.
However, Marks accepts the occupational hazard that comes with being slammed by massive waves and is the rising star on the global surf scene.
The 17-year-old is also a top contender for one of two spots on the U.S. team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics where surfing will make its debut.
“After I did that breath hold training you realize how long you can hold your breath and it’s longer than you think,” said Marks with a giggle during a telephone interview. “It’s weird. I’ve kind of been able to overcome that fear.
“We can’t control what is going to happen, sometimes you get pounded by a wave that is super big and it is not as bad as you think and sometimes it is the complete opposite.
“For me being afraid is never going to stop me from surfing, I love surfing it’s the best thing ever.”
Marks surfaced as a surfing prodigy in 2017 when she became the youngest athlete to qualify for the World Surf League (WSL) women’s Championship Tour at just 15-years-old.
In 2018, her first year on tour and still chaperoned by her parents, the American took rookie of the year honors and finished the season number seven in the world rankings.
She made another big splash in April winning the WSL season opener at Australia’s Gold Coast and currently sits second in the rankings after four events.
“I strive to get better every day, I never want to stop,” said Marks. “If I’m having a bad day I go to the ocean and I instantly feel better.
“I came into last year completely blindfolded.
“It was definitely nerve-wracking I was like do I even know what I am getting myself into but it all worked out.”
One of six children, growing up in Melbourne Beach, Florida dirt bikes and horses had looked a more likely career path for Marks.
But when her brothers took up surfing, Marks followed in tow.
It was on that surf break across the street that the goofy footer (where the right foot is forward and the left is back, as opposed to the more common opposite stance) sharpened her competitive instincts by emulating her siblings.
“I was sure I was going to be a horseback rider, a 100% sure,” recalled Marks. “Then one day I started surfing with my brothers, I always looked up to my brothers and do everything they did I thought they were like the coolest people ever.
“It was, dang, I want to be a surfer this is amazing.
“I am super competitive. It doesn’t have to be surfing, just with anything I want to be the best at anything.
“Why be here unless you want to be the best, that’s kind of my mindset.”
Like most teenagers, Marks is loathe to plan too far ahead most of the time thinking about nothing more than the next wave. But the Olympics have caught her attention.
The WSL world rankings at the end of the 2019 season will determine 18 of the 40 places at the Olympic Games (10 men and eight women).
The remaining 22 places will be awarded at the 2019 and 2020 ISA World Surfing Games, the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima with a single slot (each for men and women) going to host nation Japan.
“Of course I want to make the Olympics, it would be absolutely amazing but I am young and there is not as much pressure,” said Marks.
“I’m just going to kind of do my thing and if it happens that’s amazing, if not I know I have a lot of time to make it.”
Then Marks paused for a moment and added; “OK, I do really, really want to make it.”
(Editing by Christian Radnedge)